‘Among the opinions we can be sure to encounter is a certain uneasiness with our Missal’s use of traditional language and even the snarky charge that Divine Worship is really just a “Tudorbethan fantasy, an exercise in mock-Tudor nostalgia, or a Cranmerian pastiche with limited appeal and prospects only for evangelising a small set of gin-sipping anglophiles.” I exaggerate for effect, but only slightly – just wait until the blogs light up and start smoking with both sharp criticism and misplaced praise for the linguistic register of Divine Worship. Criticism of our sacral dialect is to be expected and is in fact quite understandable, given what we’ve lived through in the general linguistic confusion of the last fifty years and given the unfortunate politicising of liturgical expression, but I would suggest too that such misapprehension can be an occasion to rediscover and rethink the evangelising potential of Catholic worship in our distinct sacral idiom.
First observation: Liturgical language is not primarily a means of description or information; it is not and has never been the diffuse idiom of everyday communication and commerce; rather it is the Church’s focused, concentrated instrument of mediation to effect, to incarnate our participation in the saving mysteries of our faith and to immerse, to wash the faithful in the figural meanings of Holy Scripture.
Second observation: Liturgical language is stylised, enacted speech with its own kind of intelligibility, and far from excluding archaic elements it welcomes a modicum of traditional expressions and some ritualised conventions that “reach to the roots”, resonate in the auditory memory, and habituate an experience of worship wider, deeper, older than ourselves, transcending the gathered congregation in time and space to represent and configure our incorporation into the Communion of the Saints.
Third observation: Liturgical language is recursive and immersive; it bears and demands repetition, day by day, week by week, season by season, year by year, without ever exhausting its capacity to stimulate meditation and work ongoing conversion of life; its words are “poetic” in the sense of being athletic, even ascetic, by gently, insistently stretching the limits of expression in order to exercise, train, tune, and elevate our faculties that we might lift up our hearts to God and open out our lives in love and service.
Along these lines, recent decades have seen some new appreciation of the function of liturgical language, though it’s been an appreciation forged in fires of controversy and some ashes of compromise - as well you know. Still the ecclesial context is vital – what a difference it makes to be fully, unambiguously Catholic! Words, of course, signify their meanings in context, according to their arrangement, occasion, and purpose, the time, place, and attitude of their utterance (ad placitum ab suppositio as medieval grammarians were fond of saying). When we recite the familiar words of the Nicene Creed, I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, those words must mean something very different to us as Catholics than when we said the same words as Anglicans (with our fingers crossed!). It makes a profound difference to pray the Mass with the Collect for Purity at the beginning and the Prayer of Thanksgiving at the end, clustered now not around an equivocal Prayer of Consecration (one not altogether clear about what exactly it’s doing), but irradiating from the confidence of the Roman Canon and the power of the Holy Sacrifice. Such a context can literally transfigure the significance of familiar words. Yet we also know from our Anglican experience that the rich words of the Prayer Book can fall flat and ring hollow when an otherwise lovely lex orandi gets detached from an authoritative lex credendi and leaves lex vivendi prey to the zeitgeist of “lifestyle politics” and sets souls adrift.
It seems to me, then, that we have to learn to read our own Anglican history and to examine our habits and affections in a new key, a new context, not so much for the defensive retention of a “goodly heritage”, but to discover in its resources a new impetus for transfiguring mission’.
from a talk entitled Very Members Incorporate:
Some Reflections on the Sacral Language of Divine Worship
2 February 2015, by Dr Clinton Allen Brand KSG
Fr Lee Kenyon